Why you should care
Because house sparrows are more than pretty little birds.
Growing up in Old Delhi, Rakesh Khatri spent hours tending to house sparrows, the tiny birds that flitted among the crevices in his dilapidated old building. Khatri and his friends would lay bits of wool and torn sheets in the sparrows’ nests, sprinkling them with wheat seeds to ensure the birds had food. But as days melted into years, Khatri moved to a sprawling apartment in the Indian capital’s plush Ashok Vihar neighborhood. Cracked walls became a thing of the past and, to Khatri’s dismay, so did the little birds.
“I assumed they suddenly went extinct,” says the 56-year-old documentary filmmaker. “But when I did some research, I realized that it was the concrete jungle I had moved to — it had robbed the sparrows of their habitat.”
India has been rapidly urbanizing over the past few decades, and its urban populations are projected to balloon by 404 million people by 2050, according to a recent U.N. report. In response, the country has constructed a fleet of “vertical cities” to accommodate the swelling numbers, wreaking havoc on the little gray birds.
Unlike the West, the culture of conservation is not ingrained in the Indian social fabric.
“House sparrows are indicators of a healthy ecology,” says Stalin D., director of Vanashakti, a Mumbai-based environmental nongovernmental organization. “Natural pest controllers, their presence means there are enough insects and worms in the vicinity. They prevent plants from getting infested, and form a major part of the food chain for other birds like the magpie.”
So named because they are found wherever houses exist, the sparrows in India’s metropolises are facing a dire housing shortage, a situation that is being replicated in cities globally. “The changes in urban planning design create a shortage of nesting sites for these birds,” says Isaac Kehimkar, former deputy director of the Bombay Natural History Society, “and this has led to a decline in the population of house sparrows all over the world.”
There are no governmental bodies measuring the sparrow population in India, but it was reported in 2010 that in states like Kerala, Gujarat and Rajasthan, the number had dropped by 20 percent, while the decline in coastal areas was as sharp as 70 to 80 percent. The same report showed decreases in most of Europe, with the Netherlands labeling the sparrow an endangered species after the population dropped by half. In the U.K., the British Trust for Ornithology estimated that London’s sparrow population experienced a 71 percent decline between 1994 and 2002. Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dublin, Hamburg and Berlin have seen similar declines.
In response to the worrisome trend Khatri observed from his “concrete jungle,” he came up with the idea to create artificial nests. He studied the birds, pored over online manuals and designed a prototype in 2003, then placed the faux nests atop balconies and roofs throughout his housing complex with the permission of the management company. Within weeks, the sparrows had moved into the prefab housing, and, in a bigger sign of approval, they began to breed and lay eggs.
Elated with his success, Khatri set up the Eco-Roots Foundation to promote his mission and raise awareness. As of December 2017, he has crafted 40 types of nests using eco-friendly material, including coconut fiber, jute thread and bamboo sticks. And with the help of 110 volunteers, Eco Roots has to date mounted 38,000 nests across 30 cities in India, with Khatri estimating at least a 65 to 70 percent occupancy rate. For installations in public spaces, Khatri seeks the approval of the local authorities, a process he describes as informal and hassle-free — consisting of a written letter followed by a verbal nod.
Named an Earth Day Network Star last year and presented with the International Green Apple Award in London’s House of Commons, Khatri is seen by some as the sparrow savior. But there are others who are skeptical about the reach and efficacy of Khatri’s initiative; Kehimkar, for instance, says that building nests is a “good gesture” but not a solution.
Instead of assuming that urbanization is the root cause of the house sparrows’ declining population, Kehimkar argues for a more biological analysis to determine why their numbers have dropped and what steps are needed to conserve the species. “Captive breeding should come into place, areas favorable for these birds should be identified, declared protected, and should be kept from development,” he says, if the downward trend is to be reversed.
Khatri agrees that without the help of a government agency, it’s impossible to assess if his work over 10 years has slowed the decline. But he’s quick to point to anecdotal evidence that the foundation’s efforts are yielding positive results. In October 2014, for example, Khatri and a group of volunteers installed 300 nests around the toll plaza at Delhi-Noida highway. Over the next week, volunteers watched the nests and reported that each one had been claimed by house sparrows, and the birds had bred a minimum of two times in their new homes.
In addition to its fieldwork, Eco-Roots runs workshops for local students, teaching them how to build the artificial nests and why conservation is crucial. So far, Khatri has visited 3,500 schools to train nearly 150,000 children (and their teachers). He estimates that raw materials cost roughly 200 rupees ($3) per nest, and by charging 350 rupees ($5) per student, the workshop fees cover his costs to install the nests around the country.
By promoting its efforts through street performances, plays and video, Eco Roots spreads awareness about the importance of bird conservation. It is this aspect, says Sumaira Abdulali, from the environmental NGO Awaaz Foundation, that makes Khatri’s initiative stand out.
Unlike the West, the culture of conservation is not ingrained in the Indian social fabric, Abdulali says. “We do have enthusiasts, who regularly organize bird-watching camps. However, the instinct to protect birds is absent.… Khatri’s initiative may not be the most ideal solution to tackle the population decline of birds, but it is bringing this concern to common people.”
Common people working to protect the common house sparrow, so the next generation, whether in dilapidated houses or fancy high-rises, know they must protect a species much smaller and more vulnerable than their own.